Stephanie got out of the car in front of the plain, one-story house. Peter came around quickly to take her hand and walk her to the front door, pressing the button to lock the car, then jingling the keys until he found the right one. He brought her into his living room and she sank into the couch, her swollen eye looking more red and bruised as time passed.
"Can I get you something to eat or drink?" he asked.
"Do you have hot tea? Something strong and dark if you have it," she said.
"Let me check." In the kitchen he filled the kettle and put it on to boil. The tea cupboard was a mess, with open, half-used containers filling the bottom shelf completely. "I have an Assam blend, but it is flavored with cinnamon and orange. Is that okay?"
He got out his larger teapot and warmed it with a little hot water, then dropped in two big scoops of loose tea. When the kettle sang, he filled the pot and left it on the stove to steep. He put some butter cookies on a tray with two mugs, then poured tea for them both.
"Here you go, cream or sugar?"
"No, black is fine."
He watched her sip the tea, wincing at the heat, but swallowing it anyway.
"I have a big, soft robe and some sweats you can wear if you like."
"Thank you, Peter. I'd like to take a shower too, if you don't mind."
"I'll get it set up for you."
He picked up the dirty clothes in his bedroom on the way to the bathroom, dropping them as he passed the hamper, and chuckled at his own nervousness. She had to know of his crush since his first day at the Reading Room, but his old fashioned view of relationships and sexuality always stopped him from pursuing her. They'd become good work friends, but the incident had brought things into a new perspective.
Sex work was dangerous on a number of levels, but because of his feelings for her he had turned away at a critical moment and missed seeing what had happened. There was nothing he could have done to stop her being hit, but he still felt horrible that he had waited until he heard her shouting her safe word to stop the assault. It would have never gotten so far if he had just forced himself to watch her with her customers like he was supposed to.
As he finished putting out the towels and clothes, Stephanie came walking quietly into the bathroom. She watched him over her steaming mug of tea, her huge black eye and bruised knuckles looked painful. He started the water to get it hot, then stepped back out of the large shower.
"You're all set. Feel free to use any of the hair products or soaps in there. I try out stuff, but never finish them or throw them away for some reason. I've put the towel here and there is a clean wash cloth on the hook in the shower."
"Thanks again, Peter. I feel much better knowing you are close. It's silly, I know, but this really shook me up."
"I understand, just yell if you need anything."
She began to undress as he left her alone. That was one odd thing about working together at the Reading Room. She spent much of their time together in various states of undress. It should have lost its punch, but knowing she was naked on the other side of the wall made him tent his pants like a college kid. He shook his head and went to prepare something light for them to eat while he finished off his tea.
He cubed chicken breast, then speared chicken on skewers with mushrooms, sliced onions, and cherry tomatoes. Next the took asparagus spears with a bit of cheese and wrapped them with prosciutto, using toothpicks to hold them together. After warming the grill on the patio, he put the skewers over the fire and the asparagus on the elevated warming rack. By the time Stephanie came out wearing his sweats and robe, he was sitting by the grill with a dram of Lagavulin in a low crystal glass.
"Got one of those for me?"
"Sure, I have Lagavulin or Ardbeg."
"The Ardbeg, please."
They sat at the patio table drinking whisky for a while in silence, while the grill smoke scented the air. He tried not to stare at her, but she seemed to pull at his eyes with an irresistible force. Her damp hair was flat, and the bruise around her eye was darker. She had washed off the little bit of makeup she normally wore leaving her with a pale, transparent look. But despite all that, Peter thought, she is beautiful, strong, sensual, and impossibly out of my reach.
"I mentioned my past earlier this evening, remember?" she asked, speaking quietly and looking at the whisky she swirled slowly in her glass.
"When you talked about not having a choice when you were younger?"
"Yes. There was a time when I was basically at the mercy of an older man. He used me, confused me. He was so crazy that you got pulled into his twisted view of love and sex. He also raped me, which was bad enough, but he was the first man to bring me to orgasm when he did it. That fucks with your head."
"Shit." Peter was instantly uncomfortable and worried about her.
"Yeah. It taught me that my body is not my ally in life. It has an agenda as well, which sometimes does not coincide with my own. I hated him. I hated him so much I fantasized about how I would kill him. And yet, when he grabbed me by my hair and pushed me down onto my bed, I would get so wet. Every fucking time."
"Steph, are you okay? I mean, after all that happened, can I call someone?"
"No, I just want you to understand something about me. I know you like me, but you need to understand some things about me before you get too close. I don't want you to feel like I led you on, or lied to you. I'm fucked up, Peter. You know the saying, don't stick your dick in crazy? I'm crazy."
"Look, stop beating yourself up about this. Sure, I like you, but I am not about to try anything right now. You've just been knocked around, for God's sake, Steph."
"Please let me finish what I want to say. And if you want me to sleep on the couch tonight, that's fine too. You need to know these things even if we are just going to stay friends. Please."
Peter leaned over and just took her hand. She looked into his eyes.
"I like you too, Peter, as far as that goes. My work at the club is a kind of therapy for me. I almost feel like I'm training my body to do what I want, instead of always being at the mercy of what it wants. When I allow someone to control me, they might feel like they are doing something to me, but the whole time I'm training my body to do what I want it to. It has taken a long time, but I have learned to control my body now, not the other way around."
"That make sense, in a crazy way. I've never thought about it like that."
"I just want you to know, whatever happens, that I have more things to work through. I can't have a normal job, just be someone's girlfriend, not with all I still feel. That man who raped me broke something inside me, Peter. My instant reaction to arousal is rage. It has taken me a long time to push through that feeling, to stop being so angry at my own body and the person I'm attracted to. I wouldn't bring this up at all, but tonight got me so spun up. You were kind enough to let me stay with you, I didn't want you to misunderstand."
"Damn. I have to tell you, just knowing you from work, you seem so together, so casual about things I'm still hung up on. I'd have never even guessed all this was going on in your head."
"It sucks, but it is who I am, so I have no choice but to try to deal with it. Sometimes it gets me down. I can't have close friends, because when I do I end up pushing them away or hurting them. I've never had a serious relationship for much the same reason. But sometimes, like tonight, I really wish I did."
Her eyes were full of tears and she looked so lost, so tired. Peter stood up and drew her into his arms. She broke as she clutched him, the kind of heart wrenching sobs that made him tear up in sympathy as he smoothed her hair. She eventually stopped crying, taking big breaths to get her composure back. He held her until she let go to sit back down again.
"Thank you. I get tired of being strong sometimes."
"I understand." He was surprised that he really did. He still couldn't imagine what she went through, but so many little things fell neatly into place as he reflected.
He pulled the chicken skewers and vegetables off the grill and put them on plates for them both. She seemed to have a good appetite and ate everything he had prepared. He poured another dram after the meal and she followed him into the kitchen as he cleaned up.
"I hope I haven't completely scared you off."
Peter smiled. "No, I'm still happy to hold you tonight, like you asked. I also have new respect for your strength and sympathy for what you've been though."
"Just no pity, please."
Peter shook his head, then put the last of the dishes in the drying rack and dried his hands on the towel. She seemed less tense, less wounded somehow. He picked up his whisky and took her hand, leading her to the bedroom. They walked slowly with their fingers entwined, bumping their shoulders together with each step.
Stephanie slid onto the bed and sat her drink on the night stand. Peter removed his shirt and tossed it in the laundry basket, then stepped into the closet to change into a pair of shorts to sleep.
"Feel free to turn on the TV. I'm going to lock up and set the alarm."
Stephanie smiled as he left, but only reached for her drink to have another sip. He returned to find her sitting against her pillows, her drink resting on her leg, dozing. The bathroom light was still on but he pulled the door almost shut to darken the room. He quietly lifted the drink from her hand and placed it on the night stand, pulling the sheets and blanket out from under her legs and covering her with them.
She roused slightly when he climbed into bed, rolling over and moving her back towards him. He slid his arm under her pillow and pulled her close. Her hair smelled wonderful as it tickled his nose. Sleep was impossible, at first, while he fought the impulse to press his aching erection against her back.